The bulk of closed prisons are operating at unsafe levels, raising the risk of violence, according to penal reformers.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) also raised serious concerns at the effectiveness of the prisons’ inspectorate, saying its last inspection report was five years ago and its most recent annual report was in 2017, covering the period 2015 to 2016.
In a detailed analysis, the charity said despite initial progress in moving towards a target set in 2013, to reduce prison numbers by a third over 10 years, the figures were now heading back towards 2013 levels.
The alert over increases in imprisonment echoes concerns previously expressed by the Irish Prison Service.
The IPRT report, Progress in the Penal System 2019, said: “The vast majority of closed prisons are operating at unsafe levels. Unsafe custody limits or overcrowding conditions in prisons lead to an elevated risk of violence.”
It said the State’s Report on Penal Reform in 2013 had set a target to reduce the prison population by one third over 10 years. Numbers fell from 4,158 in 2013 to 3,718 in 2016, but reached 3,911 at the end of December 2018.
“The numbers in custody exceeded 4,000 on 26 occasions in 2018”, it said, noting that Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan had acknowledged the increase.
The report noted sharp rises in committals of less than three months (up 34%) and committals between three and six months (15%).
Based on Inspector of Prison figures for the capacity of prisons, the report said seven of the 11 closed prisons were over-capacity the worst being Limerick Female (163% over capacity); Dochas Female (123%); and Limerick Male (121%).
It said a 2014 report, into the beating to death of prisoner Gary Douch in Mountjoy in 2006, urged measures be taken to reduce and eliminate overcrowding over a defined period.
It said that during May 2019 six closed prisons were using mattresses, including Cork, Midlands, Limerick Male and Female, Cloverhill, and Castlerea.
It said the number of inmates in single cells fell slightly between 2017 and 2019, but that the numbers in double, triple, and quadruple cells increased fairly significantly.
The increases in committals were despite a very sharp drop in committals of people for failing to pay court-imposed fines for criminal offences dropping from 2,261 in 2017 to 455 in 2018 which is an 80% fall.
The report noted a drop in Community Return which is a structured early release programme between 2014 and 2018 (from 455 to 221).
It said that the Probation Service examined the decline and concluded it was related to: Unacceptable risk relating to feuding gangs; lack of willingness to engage with services and greater numbers of prisoners with no stable address to return.
The report raised serious concerns at what it said was the lack of resourcing to the Inspector of Prisons, which, it said, had not published an inspection report into a closed prison since 2014 and that its most recent annual report was 2017, covering the period 2015-2016.
“In the absence of a fully resourced and functioning prisons inspector at domestic level, Ireland is effectively dependent on international oversight,” it said.
The director general of the Irish Prisons Service, Caron McCaffrey, will address the report’s launch today.